Annette Richards, associate director of the , professor of music, and Given Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Cornell University
Paul Fleming, Taylor Family Director of the and the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities, Cornell University
Edward E. Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University
Hello, and welcome to the Humanities Pod. I'm Paul Fleming, and today we will be talking about Freedom on the Move, a database of fugitives from North American slavery that compiles thousands of stories of resistance drawn from the advertisements and newspapers and jails offering rewards for self-liberated freedom seekers. In over 30,000 original documents, one sees not only lives that have been effaced from history coming into relief-- names, personality traits, appearance, abilities, unique skills, but also a collective image of the experiences of enslaved people and the risk they took to liberate themselves.
We have with us today Ed Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University, author of The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery in the Making of American Capitalism, and one of the chief architects of Freedom on the Move website.
People were continuously resisting. This is, in a sense, the tip of the iceberg of that resistance to the system of slavery. And in the process of resisting, they write themselves-- they inscribe themselves on precisely the archive that is meant to police them, to put them under perpetual threat of death, to constrain their movement, and so on and so forth.
Thanks for having me, Paul.
We also welcome Annette Richards from Cornell’s , who will help lead the discussion.
Hi Paul. I’m glad to be here.
Great having you both here. Ed, why don't we dive straight in and begin by asking you to read a few of the selected advertisements from the thousands that are on the website?
Sure. Here's one from the Mobile, Alabama Commercial Register. And this one is from the 1820s. And it begins like this. “$50 reward. The above reward of $50 will be given to any person for apprehending a Negro woman, the property of Major E. Montgomery, named Rachel. She was under sentence of death for the crime of murder and was to have been hanged on Friday last. She is about 23 years of age, nearly black, of good figure and fine appearance. It is believed she is still in this section of country and although the jail was broken, and a small hole made through the wall, suspicion attaches strongly to the jailer who is now in confinement. It is probable that she may make for some of the free states. James P. Bates, Sheriff, Mobile County.”
Here's one that's a little bit shorter. It's from 1849, the Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, Louisiana. “$100 reward for the delivery of Brasil in either of the city prisons. He ran away last July, has been seen dressed in women's clothes several times in the city and also in genteel male apparel. He is a regular attendant of the balls, speaks French and English, is about 21 years old, a dark mulatto or copper color, has a Roman nose, rather slender genteel person. He formerly belonged to Henry Hopkins Esquire of the city. He came from Charleston, South Carolina five years ago and has the Charleston brogue when speaking English. Inquire at number 73, Baronne Street.” And the person who is seeking Brasil is George Botts.
Thank you for sharing those. I mean, what I find fascinating about them, I mean, from the icon, which one cannot see in the podcast that often is in the corner to the signature - I'd like to talk a bit about the particulars of these advertisements. But first of all, a little bit of background, as far as what these fugitive slave ads were, where they appeared, who wrote them, circulation, how effective they may have been, and how many are collected here, and any sense of what percentage this may represent. So, a little bit of background information would be great about the slave ads themselves.
Sure, so the ads are pretty much ubiquitous in pre-1865 newspapers from the slaveholding states. And that includes the northern states up to the time that they abolished slavery, which took place at different points in time from 1781 more or less in Massachusetts to the 1820s in New York and a little later in New Jersey and so on. So obviously, slavery continues in the southern states. But it's important to note what we saw in the northern states. In fact, the first newspaper in the United States was one that was published in Boston starting about 1706. And I believe it's the third issue of the first newspaper that contains the first extant runaway ad that we know of.
And they continue up until 1865 in the Richmond newspapers. I mean, Richmond is effectively besieged in January, 1865. The 13th Amendment is getting passed. The Emancipation Proclamation has already been made permanent. And there are still advertisements for runaway slaves being placed in a city under siege in part by USCT, United States Colored Troops regiments. So the ads began as early as they can, and they lasted as long as they possibly could.
Yeah, that tells us a lot about what we're dealing with here. But I'd like to flip it around as well because these adverts tell us a lot about the particulars of the enslaved people themselves, these freedom seekers, and particulars about names, faces, that otherwise were lost to history. So I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the tidbits of personal information that are carried there, the names, a sense of individuality, the way that these otherwise effaced lives come into relief.
Yeah, it's remarkable because one of the things that enslavers tried to do in the US was in fact to efface a great deal of the personhood of the enslaved, breaking up kinship ties, trying to impose new names and new relationships, moving people from here to there and so on and so forth. And so despite the ubiquity of theft and plunder that constituted the system of slavery, people still resisted. And they resisted on a pretty much continuous basis. And that's one of the things that we learn from this, these tens of thousands of ads, is that people were continuously resisting.
This is in a sense,the tip of the iceberg of that resistance to the system of slavery. And in the process of resisting, they write themselves-- they inscribe themselves on precisely the archive that is meant to police them, to put them under perpetual threat of death, to constrain their movement, and so on and so forth. It's a really remarkable historical phenomenon in that sense. And it points at still other fascinating historical phenomena that have to do with the resistance of enslaved African-Americans and free African-Americans to the system of slavery.
Can you tell us a bit more about these other historical phenomena because I'm fascinated how you said that by this act of rebellion that they write themselves into history, precisely by this confrontation with the law and the breaking the law and the seeking of freedom that they become visible to history for the first time? And you say this has other consequences for thinking about the history of slavery. I wonder if you could enlighten us a bit about what some of those consequences may be.
Well, one of the most obvious consequences is that another one of the most important sources that we have for studying enslaved people as individuals in the history of North American slavery-- and of course, we have to say first of all, that up until 1870, US censuses did not record most African-Americans as individual people because most African-Americans were enslaved. And they appear essentially as tallies, as demographic numbers, as population data on the US census.
So their names are not recorded in any systematic way. This is one of the most systematic ways, and it's a sort of census of people who resisted in this particular way to this particular extent. But I think it's not a coincidence that one of those other crucial sources that we have for understanding resistance, individuality, personhood, and what I like to call a sort of vernacular historiography of slavery that enslaved people and self-liberating people themselves create, it's a kind of living, breathing critique of the system of slavery.
But one of these sources is the personal accounts, the memoirs, and autobiographies of those who succeeded in their runaway attempts. I mean, that is in many ways not just the beginnings of African-American literature-- autobiographies like that of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. But it is one of the core roots of American and indeed, I would say, Western literature: that we continue to play with as it were, to interact with, to compose our own narratives, as people living in the United States, as people living in the West, in ways that we don't even necessarily understand. We're constantly in interaction with the tropes and the dramas recorded in those kinds of documents. And so there may be a much more… it's much more clear who the author is, right, even though it's not always necessarily clear who the author is. It's still more clear who the author of one of those autobiographies is than this account of Brasil, right. But nonetheless, it's on the same spectrum in certain ways, a sort of spectrum of accounts of resistance and the ways that gets written onto the historical record.
Even though paradoxically, of course, that description of Brasil is being written by the enslaver who is trying to recapture and bring back the resistor in a kind of fascinating way.
Yeah. Yeah, and if I could just say something along those lines. I think, above all George Botts wants Brasil to stop writing his own story, right?
And we read this of Brasil. And we can picture him, this is somebody who's writing his own story in so many ways, in his self-presentation, in his gender performance, right, in his ability to get into the interstices of New Orleans society and use—no doubt with the help of lots of both enslaved and free people of color— the complexity of that city's structure in the 1840s, its cultural and social structure, to remain literally in the same city, a relatively small city, and out of the reach of George Botts.
Yeah, I was fascinated looking through this question of assistance, the idea of rewards to bring in people who've helped people escaping— this attempt to hide in the crowd, the idea of people using the skills that they've acquired, whether they're seamstresses or shoe makers or fiddlers, actually kind of performing the things that they know how to do out in the free world as a way of hiding— that comes out in really interesting ways too from these many, many, many descriptions.
Yeah, one of the things that a number of folks have pointed out and have carried out and are beginning to even extend some really interesting meditations on this fact, is the number of musicians who are recorded, and in particular in the 18th century you see musicians who are carrying fiddles, right, who may have saved up the money that would help them to make their escape attempt a little bit more possible by playing music on a European instrument for quite possibly primarily European audiences, right, for tips and so on.
And that's surely not the only place that these almost ubiquitous fiddlers in the 18th century ads were playing, right. I'm sure they were moving between Black and white and mixed audiences and so on. But the tips were probably in the upper-class white audiences. And so there's a fascinating microcosm of the ways in which supposedly white culture is dependent on Black performance. And that Black performance becomes a very complex route to certain kinds of escape or at least escape attempts.
It's beginning as early as the 18th century, and of course, it's a process that has continued in many ways as one of the sites of culture making in the United States.
Wow, that's really fascinating. I wonder if we should move aside a little bit and talk about the larger method of this project, Ed. Tell us about who's involved. It's thoroughly collaborative— you have historians, librarians, data scientists. It involves a number of different institutions. You're bringing in members of the general public. Tell us about who's involved, and maybe say something especially about the “citizen historians” crowdsourcing aspect of this project.
Right. Yeah, the sort of crowdsourcing side of it has its roots in our recognition that man, it would be really expensive and time consuming to get all this done by graduate students and undergraduate students and ourselves and so on and so forth. Why don't we do some crowdsourcing? We know a lot of people are interested in these ads. In fact, lots of people are beyond the academy, whether we're talking about genealogists or teachers or whatever. So it began as a sort of utilitarian idea.
But very quickly, we realized that there's a broader method to that particular madness that is really essential. First of all, I think it's a recognition that these advertisements are not anybody's property, right. And they are about an attempt to render or re-render people as property. And so it's actually really important that the database be completely accessible, that it give credit to the general public, to all the different institutions — for instance, University of North Carolina Greensboro has a great project which has shared over 10,000 advertisements with us, which are already transcribed.
So we give credit to everybody who participates, wherever it's possible. We don't necessarily know everybody who does any sort of crowdsourcing entry. But we try to make it possible to record the contributions one way or the other. And so it's really crucial that we have a project that is as expansively democratic and open, equitable, decolonizing in certain ways, as is possible. Because on top of everything else, these are very complex documents, which are about people with living descendants who may discover themselves in the process of working with it.
This needs to be a process in which people can really feel a deep sense of ownership. Now when I say we, with reference to the project, I'm primarily talking about the faculty partners and some of the other folks who are specifically engaged in the process on an ongoing basis. So there are five faculty members. There's myself, there's Josh Rothman at University of Alabama, Vanessa Holden at University of Kentucky, Professor Molly Mitchell of University of New Orleans, and Professor Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University.
And then we've got great administrative leadership from Bill Block, who's a history PhD who's been the director for many years of a program called CISER here at Cornell, which has now been folded into the Cornell Center for Social Sciences. Brandon Kowalski has been our lead software developer. There's Christy Hyman who is really leading the charge for our GIS, our geographic data work, and lots of other folks who've contributed-- Lynda Kellum, who's a librarian here at Cornell, is another crucial member of the team.
So we've got a large number of people who are engaged in the project. But as you suggest, the number of people who actually interact with the project and work on it in key ways is much, much larger than that.
But there's also another dimension to the project. And that's the pedagogical side, which is a really interesting dimension of the website as well. And I found it really fascinating, the way-- there's a plan for an implementation in K through 12 education. And I'm thinking of the Lion's Side project in which the saying is, “until the lion learns to write, it will always be the hunter's story.” And this is about flipping that story and teaching the lion to write. I wonder if you could say a little bit about the pedagogical side and some of the projects that have already been implemented by grade school teachers and high school teachers throughout the United States.
Yeah. A few years ago, we started working on something that we knew we wanted to do, which was to build a pedagogical side to the site and to make that really work with the connections that Hasan Jeffries had. And he's been deeply engaged with something called the Hard History Podcast, which is a long-running attempt to get US secondary education, in particular, to engage in a really honest way with the history of the United States. And there's a great deal of fantastic pedagogical research resources that are in and around the podcast.
So he and Kate Shuster, who's one of the people who's been helping to run that project with him, got really involved in creating a much richer set of materials for the pedagogical side of the website. And Kate, in turn got us engaged with some of the groups of teachers who make up the learning communities that she and others have been pulling together over the years, bringing together into one space, whether physically or since March 2020, increasingly in virtual spaces.
The Lion's Side work is done by Ahmariah Jackson, who is a teacher down in the Atlanta, Georgia area. And it's really an amazing set of resources that he's compiled, a great video interview. I recommend that to anybody who looks at the site and wants to know, what could you really do with this to change the way that people understand and encounter some of the really difficult and complex histories that have made up the history of the United States? Watching his clip always reminds me why we're doing this work.
Yeah, it's powerful. He's amazing. In fact, that leads me to one of the things I've been thinking about, Ed. One of the goals of Freedom on the Move clearly with this incredible focus on the personal, the individual, the human in both vibrant and horrifying ways, is to bring these stories of resistance, and I guess the history of American slavery more generally, not only to people who know this history already, but especially to those who don't, if I can put it in such bald terms.
And one of the things you and others, I think have insisted on in your work, and it I think emerges very clearly here, especially in the teaching materials, is the importance of language. So what's at stake in nomenclature? And I wonder how you see Freedom on the Move helping to redefine the terms with which the practice of slavery is discussed and understood.
Yeah. That's a huge question that could spread out-- already is spread out into a lot of areas. I mean, I think the way in which slavery existed and persisted and certain similar and related forms of oppression continue to persist right alongside Western societies' claims about the individual and about political rights and the sort of sovereignty of the individual citizen of these societies, it's not an accident, right.
I've never believed it's an accident that these things could live alongside each other, and that one is pretty clearly constitutive of the other. So I think it's really important for us to not slip into the terms that allowed the institution of slavery to be defined as sort of separate and different, even as it was locked in this embrace with Northern society, with British Society, and so on and so forth. I think we need to be very clear and analytic in our terms.
There's certainly a lot of push-back from historians who say, well, they called themselves slaves. I mean, right, you know, I don't know what French peasants called themselves in the 13th century. But we can still analytically call them peasants if we believe through our analysis that that's the clearest way to describe who they were in important social and economic and other kinds of dimensions. So if we want to talk about enslaved people and conversely, if we want to talk about self-liberating people, I think if we think those are the most accurate terms as scholars that's what we should use. And we should be able to explain why that's the case.
I think we call them self-liberating people, first of all because if we say fugitives, we're just-- we're assuming along with the law that they committed a crime.
Like runaway-- yes, exactly.
Yeah, runaway is somebody who belongs in the place they're escaping from. Well, they did not believe that was the case. There's no need to perpetuate the language that helped to perpetuate slavery if by so doing, we continue to obscure the history.
I wonder if we could zoom out again towards the macro picture of this project. And I was just reflecting upon the number of people involved, from all the citizen historians and scientists, to your 5 collaborators, to the tech people, to the PhDs involved. And I'm wondering about the scale of this project, what this type of project enables by bringing together 30,000 otherwise discrete advertisements and putting them in one place as a searchable database and search engine and the types of new conclusions that can perhaps be drawn by these individual acts of resistance that are now collected-- you have an aggregate of them -- and what this might help us understand about the larger politics of emancipation, freedom seekers, history of slavery, and particularly the rebellion and the refusal side?
Yeah, I hope it enables a lot of questions and a lot of answers that I cannot as one individual scholar possibly predict or get to through my own work. And that I think is the first and most essential thing from the scholarly point of view. I would hope that not just pedagogically, but in a public history sense, what we can help people to find new ways to communicate, is that this story of tens of thousands of people -- and I believe that if we quote unquote “complete” the database, right, it'll be somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 ads; we have some sort of background files with another 20,000 or so that are ready to load, we've just got to get certain things set up technically and so on -- I hope it enables an explosion of new kinds of investigations of resistance, of slavery itself, and of the white supremacist society in which slavery existed and of which slavery was one of the key constitutive elements for both the South and the North and the federal government that linked them. Because this is ultimately a system of ads that's backed up by the US Constitution itself.
Right. Thinking about the newspapers themselves, are there other ways in which we can think of-- actually the newspapers and print culture, this form of print culture itself facilitating the practice of slavery? I mean, I'm interested in the role of the media in communicating information about individuals, about presumed property, about these acts of violence or acts of loss, so that there's a kind of media critical aspect to the project too, when you get this enormous volume of information produced by newspapers for newspaper readers. Is that part of the kind of thing you're investigating here too?
Well, I'm certainly very interested in that. I'm very interested in it. I might not necessarily have all the answers about how to investigate and approach this, but it does really seem to me that the newspaper itself as a media technology, particularly in this sort of expanding political economy of the first half of the 19th century where you're getting more pages of newspaper available to you every day, and there's a kind of doubling of the number of newspapers, every decade, something along those lines -- it seems to me that as a technology, there's a constant invitation to the presumed white reader to surveil all the Black people that they see, all the people of presumed African descent. And so you have, on the one hand, the specific individual descriptions, but they're headed by generalized either terms or icons, you know those printer's icons, which really are an invitation which is all too familiar, to participate in being cops.
And of course, this is the era where there's a great deal of racialized policing going on. But it's being conducted by all the white citizens generally. This is, to a great extent, in most of the United States an era before you have professional police forces. But to think that therefore there's not a system of policing is something that's belied by this enormous number of ads. And the ads themselves are the tip of the iceberg. If we look at them, if we say, all right, the ads have a great deal to say about individuals and their resistance, but they also have a great deal to say about the individuals of whom policing is being solicited, right, at least if we think of them as this vast collection of whites.
The expectation is that, and this is also written into the law-- this is written into the law of slavery throughout the United States-- the expectation is that it is a right and to a great extent a duty of white people to conduct this kind of surveillance of Black people who are not where they are “supposed” to be. They are given the police power under the law. These are some of the earliest laws of slavery, right? In the 17th century, they were giving the full policing power, including the power of life or death over an accused runaway.
So all of that is behind the ads, right. That all is assumed by the ads. And so I think it's very significant to see the ads as also -- as information exchange nodes in a network or a set of interrelated networks, of which the broadest and most extensive is the network of all the white people in the United States.
That's something I was not thinking about when it comes to the collective side of this project, but the way in which these ads produce basically a police Academy for training the white eye to keep a constant gaze upon Black folks that they see. That is just-- I mean, it's unbelievable, but it's not unbelievable. The way the image works, and here these are just verbal images, the way that has continued up to this day as far as the surveillance focus of white people towards Black American fellow citizens.
And so I'm wondering also, in part, how this project, which on the one hand seems to be about slavery and back then, but on the other hand, has incredible currency today with Black Lives Matter, with all sorts of movements happening today. And there are related projects in England, such as the “Runaway Slaves in Britain” project. So I wonder if you on your own have some thoughts about how this project can tie in to contemporary issues as far as race, racism, Black Lives Matter and our burning issues in the United States today.
Yeah, I don't think it's much of a leap as you suggest. I hope this project, other projects like it, and other work that's being done in academic spaces or in spaces that are a bit more open to the general public, which certainly I hope this is. But I hope that kind of work is part of the process of providing a deep historical grounding for activism, which certainly is something that's already there in the various movements and groups that we might collectively call Black Lives Matter.
Much of the analysis that I can make of these documents as evidence of these deeper tectonic systems of policing and white supremacy comes from the analysis that's being done by activists in real time, and in addition to anti-policing work, the work that's being done by prison abolitionists and others. I am most definitely reading and listening and learning from those movements and have been for some time, and I’m certainly not the only academic to do it and to try to be in conversation with those ideas. And so I learn a great deal from those folks as well.
In the pedagogical sense, I think there's some very specific things about investigating these ads that I believe could for some students-- and I think we see evidence with teachers’ materials on the website, that with the right teachers, this can be maybe a significant number of students -- that this can hopefully have a transformative effect on their understanding of the history of this country.
Because these ads would not exist without the resistance of enslaved individuals, these ads cannot contain their resistance, right, these ads are begging for help against their resistance. And so they also encase these stories that are not fully controlled, these opportunities for a Brasil or a Rachel to write their own story of escape. I think that's fascinating. There's an attempt to write “copaganda,” but actually it's a “Fugitive Slave narrative”, right, quote unquote, right like Frederick Douglass or some of the other classics.
It's more at the length of a tweet, but it's there. I used to talk about these as the tweets of the master class, but they’re really tweets of the unmastered class, right?
So I hope on the pedagogical side that that can spark kinds of learning that are anything but rote learning, that don't just convey the image of enslaved people dutifully submitting, right. They do anything but that.
If I could just jump in on that, because one of the striking things about the adverts as well is the ire directed at the helpers or the perceived helpers to the freedom seekers, and rewards equally being given out for those who have helped them. And I thought that one of the interesting things about the Lion's Side pedagogical project is to rewrite these advertisements giving rewards to have people help the self-liberating people, and also to really to make it alive to people about the need to be engaged today around these issues. I thought that was a really kind of powerful combination between the database itself and what the Lion's Side was trying to do with it.
Yeah, and just with respect to the second, I mean, what an amazing demonstration of the way in which younger people can see their way past what we've convinced ourselves are intractable dilemmas, perhaps because they really are very, very tough problems, but also perhaps because maybe we've given up a little bit.
You know, if we think about it, the core of this story, it's kind of a challenge to the Joseph Campbell, or whoever, idea of the male hero's quest as this kind of constitutive trope in Western culture.
I mean, this is the “fugitive's” escape as the constitutive movement in what there is of good in the United States, in American culture, and more broadly, because this is a story that goes beyond the United States, both in terms of the work that is done by those who escaped slavery here, and how that affects other cultures, and by the ways in which the inverse happens, in which people escape from slavery other places and their acts shape what happens in the United States.
And so if we could make ourselves all identify… first and foremost, if we could make sure we're identifying with Brasil and not with George Botts, right. This is a different country, and for some people, it's necessary. And for some people, it's more easy. And for some people, it's more difficult. And I don't want to sound too utopian, but it really is rewriting some of the laws, as it were, of Western culture to acknowledge how constitutive Black resistance in the United States is to so much of American (and maybe even beyond) political history, cultural history, et cetera, et cetera.
That's the lesson we learn from Toni Morrison if we listen. That's the lesson we learn from many others if we listen. And maybe that's a lesson that's going to be available with this NEA work if we hear it.
Great, fantastic. Thank you for the conversation, Ed.
Sure, thank you.
And thank you for joining us in the pod, Annette.
Thank you, Paul.
We've been talking today with Ed Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University. The Humanities Pod is a production of Cornell’s introducing you to some of the new work, the current conversations, and the latest ideas of humanists at and around Cornell. The pod was recorded today by Bertrand Odom-Reed. The pod is produced by Tyler Lurie Spicer. Our music is from “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint” by David Borden, performed and recorded by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company.
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